Justine's vigil brings comfort, questions
On Saturday, November 3, dozens of people flocked to Taylor Park on Main Street in downtown Orange for a vigil to remember Justine Swartz Abshire, a 27-year-old kindergarten teacher and animal lover killed November 3, 2006, in an apparent hit and run on Taylorsville Road near Barboursville.
While the vigil was intended to remember and celebrate Justine's life, her family also wanted to remind those in attendance that the crime remains unsolved. Along with friends, reporters– including a New York-based television crew from ABC's 20/20 and Primetime shows– mingled and interviewed attendees, some of whom had traveled from as far away as California and Oregon to attend.
Most of the vigil-goers were local, however, including one whose presence might have come as a surprise to some: Justine's widower, Eric Abshire.
Last May, at the same they boosted a reward for information leading to an arrest in the case from $10,000 to $50,000, the Swartzes took the unusual step of suggesting Abshire had been less than forthcoming with both them and with police. They cited alleged inconsistencies in his story about the night Justine died as particularly troubling.
Despite that history, Justine's father, Steve Swartz, greeted Abshire as he arrived at around 7pm, and the focus of the event remained on Justine, "a tenderhearted sweet, dear teacher," as Pat Ammons, a former colleague at Emerald Hill Elementary School, remembered her.
For nearly an hour, vigil-goers decorated quilt squares, chatted, and admired pictures of Justine as a baby, young girl, and woman.
Towards the back of the small bricked park hung a quilt made by Justine and her classmates when she was in kindergarten. One of Justine's squares showed a childish self-portrait of a smiling blond girl, accompanied by the words "full of joy."
As the sun set, the group, wearing bright blue glow sticks, listened as Heidi and Steve Swartz and their younger daughter, Lauren, spoke about Justine.
Heidi's recollections inspired smiles and tears as she described "the Justine you didn't know": a "self-conscious preteen with braces and curly hair"; Justine "sleeping with her sister every night so she wouldn't have to make her bed"; a grown Justine adopting an "awful, ugly cat because she was afraid no one else would take her home."
An emotional Lauren Swartz dedicated a poem to her older sister, and was comforted at the microphone by her father, who, during his own speech, spoke the words he said he believes Justine would speak if she were here. "When you grieve, it is the price of loving," he said. "Embrace it all, and go on loving. I am with you, and you are me."
As the service ended, Steve Swartz and Abshire quietly walked away from the crowd and spent nearly an hour in conversation in the shadows at the far side of the small park.
Swartz says despite his previous public questioning of his son-in-law, he wanted to "make an effort to keep lines of communication open." He also wanted to reassure Abshire, who left the park without speaking to reporters (and has not returned the Hook's calls for comment), that he and Heidi are open to all possibilities about what may have happened to Justine that night. "All we're really after is the truth," says Swartz, "whatever that is."
One of the Swartzes' closest friends says their search for answers about Justine's death drives them past the point of exhaustion.
"They want so much to get this resolved that they don't think of themselves at all," says Allen Hoover. "Personal angst, suffering– nothing figures into their ultimate goal."
Heidi Swartz says the vigil provided comfort for her, both in seeing people she's known and loved for years, but also in watching Abshire's side of the family arrive to show their love for her daughter.
"It's a testament to how they felt about Justine," she says. "It's been an uncomfortable year for everyone because of not knowing what happened. To see them there, so warm and friendly to all of us, felt good. I believe that everyone there wants the truth, and that made me feel really good."